SLU panel addresses 'subtle' forms of racism

"Don't go north of the Fox."

This is the message -- the warning -- that new students receive upon entering St. Louis University in midtown St. Louis.

It isn't delivered by anyone in any official capacity. Rather, it's conversations among students and perhaps faculty and staff about what's what around the university.

The message "is code for 'be afraid of those people,'" said Norm White, associate professor and director of the criminology and criminal justice department at SLU, "...with a racial and racist connotation."

"Those people" would be African-Americans. Extrapolated, a deeper message might be perceived.

"What it means for a young black man on this campus is that the other students have been told to be afraid of you," said White, who made his remarks in a panel discussion Sept. 4 at St Xavier (the College) Church on the SLU campus.

The six-person panel addressed the violence in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting death of unarmed African-American Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. The panel endeavored to answer two questions: What should we learn?; and where do we go from here?

The answers from the panel -- three black men, two black women and a white woman -- essentially were that American society has learned very little in the years since the Civil War, that racism is more subtle today than overt in the past and that blacks, particularly males, feel discrimination in many ways.

"Harassed for simply being," as described by White.

White told of an African-American student who was returning to his dorm one night, and as he crossed the street, the student on the other side "turns and all of a sudden starts running."

"He's a student here!" White said, incredulously, and he could have been referring to either student -- the one feared, or the one fearful.

Panelist Stefan Bradley, a professor of history and African-American studies, spoke of numerous race riots in the 20th century -- East St. Louis in 1917, Harlem in 1934 and 1943, Newark and Detroit in 1967, the Rodney King incident in 1992.

"At the base of this Ferguson crisis is the idea that some people haven't been listening to black voices," said Bradley, noting that his fellow panelists "should have been listened to beforehand and we wouldn't have the crisis we do now. ...

"More than anything, perhaps we should listen to young black people because if you don't listen to young black people, you get Ferguson. And if you don't start listening a little harder right now, Ferguson is act one."

The panelists and standing-room-only audience agreed that dialogue -- and Bradley's mandate for listening -- might be the key moving forward.

"Language can be used to build bridges, or create further division," said panelist Karla Scott, an associate professor and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in SLU's communication department.

But also, in this dialogue, people need to understand that they bring their own "stuff" and society's "stuff" to the conversation, which for blacks includes "centuries of systemic marginalization, repression, dehumanization," Scott said, echoing the words of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson in his homily at a Mass for peace and justice during the Ferguson crisis.

With that stuff, "it gets more difficult to meet in the middle," Scott noted, adding these conversations can be difficult but must occur. She challenged fellow faculty members to find ways "to transform society in our classrooms."

However, that will be difficult, considering the structures that have been passed down over the centuries.

Colleen McClusky, an associate professor in the philosophy department, noted that "leading intellectuals" from the 16th century on, including Thomas Jefferson, had "lively discussions about race ... but all of these individuals are white." She added that, for this reason, white people need to take responsibility for racism and help set it right.

"We are at a defining moment as a university and community," White concluded, adding that SLU should be a leader and that if not, "We fail the Jesuit mission when we suggest there are others we need to be afraid of and people we must avoid. We fail the others when we fail in the opportunity to touch their souls."

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